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Thursday, March 7, 2019

"Oh What a Strange Month it has Been"

Hey there. It's been almost eight years of doing this and I've never really had a guest post. Today, that changes. A dear friend wrote this about her experiences in the industry and with a company we both worked for. She needed to get this out but didn't have the platform. I have the platform. The problem met the solution, and here we are.

Without further ado, this is the post. I have added markup for the ordered list items, but otherwise this is the original text.


"Oh What a Strange Month it has Been", by Goranka

With full credit to Susan Fowler for inspiring this literary reference and to Liz Fong-Jones for her leadership which resulted in Google walk-out that was heard around the world, and if nothing else, removed mandatory arbitration clause from a number of high-tech companies, not just Google. Here is to you, and all other women who fought and thought they were the only ones...

When I found out I was out of Facebook, I had no plan to write about it. For multiple different reasons: This is not about Facebook. The company was very, very good to me, and I consider myself incredibly lucky. As a matter of fact, I would argue that once an engineer focuses their time on something other than engineering and their energy starts being spent on things that are not their primary work, the company is well justified to consider if this focus is aligned with company interests and if it is not, find people better suited for pure engineering roles. I would be remiss not to mention my two managers and champions over the last 8.5 years - who both happen to be men! and who have been nothing but supportive - Thanks Bill and Jason, you are incredible allies! So, if you are reading this with a hope of finding a lot of dirt about the company - you are bound to be disappointed. Stop reading now and save yourself some time.

Until five years ago, I assumed my experience was every woman’s experience - everyone had the opportunities to do the work they did best, and everyone was fairly compensated (valued?) for it. So, what happens that makes somebody change their mind so thoroughly? I am not sure I know the full answer to this question, but I will say this: My (ex) co-workers. I feel torn between betraying the company that has treated me extremely well and betraying the people that have shown me overwhelming support, kindness and... crap, love. And, not all of them were in the group I have been advocating for, cause a large number of them are men, and some of their responses brought me close to tears. So, like all the amazing Google men who walked out with their female colleagues, I want to call out the incredible men of Facebook engineering who have reached out and asked what help I need, offered to help with my medical bills, and in general - just shown what incredible human beings they are. And, I suspect, I have a track record of being mean to them at least once (but hey, don't come asking for gear if your architecture/code/whatever is... imperfect? :))

So, let's just dive right into it: High-tech, especially as it is practiced in Silicon Valley and its offshoots, is a toxic and broken industry that is long overdue for change. I am not here to talk about Travis and Uber, Andy and Google or even Kelly Ellis being stalked by Alex Gulakov (search for it if you have not heard the case). These stories have all been told, and we have collectively gotten outraged, maybe even changed our profile pictures for 15 minutes and moved on.

I am here to present facts, and point out that women (and underrepresented minorities) are treated differently and unfairly in the engineering roles and that this behavior needs to stop. The reality is that an engineer has a job which is usually somewhat related to the job description... unless that engineer is a woman and/or minority. (I cannot speak on behalf of women who are minorities, although I have certainly advised a few and heard their plight. For me to speak on their behalf and talk about their experience would be patronizing at best. That does not mean, at all, that their story isn't much more heartbreaking than the one I am qualified to talk about. And, I also want to acknowledge, upfront, that they have certainly not received support they deserved from organizations that are frequently led by white women, organizations which have been raking in money on the backs of us all. That, again, is simply a fact.)

Fact: If you are a woman or a minority engineer, you will be required to do the additional work of advocating, speaking out, presenting, recruiting, mentoring, supporting and otherwise engaging in activities that "prove" the high-tech company you work for cares and is serious about all these marginalized groups. If there is a better argument to prove that they actually do not care, I'd love to hear it. Now, if you are lucky, like I have been, and you actually have a management chain that supports and rewards that work, you will continue doing it and telling other people like you that everything is fine. And, I apologize for it. I should have known better, and I should have seen it, but I did not. But, once you actually see what happens to many other marginalized engineers, who not only do not get rewarded for this work, but some of whom actually get penalized for it, you cannot go back. You have to speak out. It does not matter that the injustice did not touch me personally and that I was shielded from it, what matters is that it is the responsibility of the strong to protect the weak, and that I have been taught those words during my formative years and that there is nothing I can do but to follow that mantra.

I don't have solutions, but I have suggestions for women:

  1. Most important: Be anonymous on the internet (Yes, I understand the irony, thank you.)

    When you post things you know trolls will jump on, don't make yourself easy to identify. Don't read the comments, but have somebody else do it for you, and weed out/remove all the crap and forward you only supportive comments. Trolls are few, but they are loud, make it easy for yourself to ignore them.

  2. Choose to work at diverse companies (you get to define what that is and what it looks like for you!)

    Or start forming your own, inclusive companies. When looking, ask about how many of their senior, diverse people were grown in-house. You are not looking for visible figure-heads, you are looking for individual contributors, people who you aspire to be like one day. High-tech companies are willing to throw a lot of money at the problems they are not actually interested in solving, so figure-heads are easy to come by, and every high-tech company will have them. What’s not as easy to fake is the support and opportunities needed to take a junior IC and grow them into a senior IC.

  3. Stop supporting organizations that are exploiting the plight of women in technology.

    ABI and Grace Hopper Celebration may seem empowering the first time you go there, but if you look under all the glitter and celebration, you will find the organization that makes it easy for technology companies to pay a fee and not care. If all a company is doing for diversity is attending Grace Hopper, they’re not doing anything for the women that work there. Instead of advising, mentoring and growing your minority engineers, pay $1M or more, get your name prominently displayed everywhere as the "good" guys and problem solved. Except, not only is it not, it has actually gotten a lot worse during the time these celebrations were organized. Remember, these companies cannot exploit us, unless we allow it.

  4. Support, advise, and help young women.

    Support them even when they are saying things you do not like - understand their world-view may be confused. I've been "one of the guys" for three decades and even though one of my wonderful ex-bosses set me down and yelled at me for being blind (actually, it was more like "How stupid can you be?!?!?! You didn’t get the promotion because you were a woman!!!" I did not believe him, and even though the data is on his side... Let's just say it could have been my stellar personality! :))

  5. Thank, acknowledge, cultivate and actively seek out allies.

    It can be hard to recognize that most men are actually pretty nice, when you are being targeted by mediocre losers and nobody is seeing it. But, understand that the mediocre loser has a lot of practice and is probably hiding his actions really well. Go out and pre-emptively ask for help/support. Ask your lead if you are doing something wrong (they'll probably be surprised to hear you have any problems at all) and then make sure they observe and bear witness to what is happening. Most good engineers will support good engineers - regardless of race or gender. It is the mediocre losers you need to protect yourself from.

  6. If the team is toxic, leave. Don't wait.

    If there are no other teams you can join inside the company, leave the company. Trust me - if the company cared, it would track the managers/teams who have high rates of URMs leaving. It is not that hard, is it? It is not your duty to suffer so a crappy manager can look good in their diversity report. It is not your job to train a manager, either.

  7. On that note, as companies grow, the hiring bar will go down.

    you will know this has started happening when you start hearing official reports that sound like this: "We will grow at X% this year, and that is a lot, but actually, our hiring bar has gone up." The second you hear that, realize it is being said so the company can create a new reality.

  8. Likewise "We have non-retaliation policy" is the clear sign of the exact opposite.

    Be careful what you say, have your resume ready and start looking for smaller companies. How do you find good ones? The same way people have for decades - cultivate a support network of people who you trust and ask them what the situation is like in places where they are now.

  9. DO NOT, ever, buy into that nonsense that is is "your duty" to help increase diversity for the company.

    This is one of the most important lessons here. If the company cared, they would fix the problem, like they fix other problems that are actually important to them and you never heard about. Think about every new product or every new division in the company that was formed to address a particular problem that company really saw as important. How much did you hear about it *before* the solution was put in place and communicated to the troops? Not at all, right? Suddenly, there was a new group, a new team, a new initiative, with full leadership at the top, and you never even knew it was going on, even when you may feel like you were one of the most qualified people to work on it. The people who did work on it get rewarded for this work, because it’s their job. Your duty is to build expertise and resume showing growth and potential, to progress in your career and to do the work that is expected of the majority of engineers. Nothing more, nothing less. Any work you do on diversity is a bonus for the company. It’s not viewed as work and not rewarded as work, because fundamentally it’s not actually part of your job. And people assume you’re doing it because you’re passionate about it (which is true) and not because there’s no one else to. And, again, in the words of an anonymous woman on the internet, cause this definitely came from a woman: "You should not set yourself on fire to keep other people warm."

To all the wonderful people who have reached out - THANK YOU! I am doing fine, and from the bottom of my heart I wish all the best for you, and for all the companies you currently work for. In particular, I wish all the best for Facebook; this is NOT a single company problem. This is the industry problem.

For my part - I have my health to deal with. To any of you that need help, advice, etc. If I can be of help, even as just an ear to listen to you and tell you: "It is not you, it is them!" I am here. And, to any company representative who has the power to change things and genuinely wants to change them... I will give you my time for free. I will tell you what you are doing that is killing your URM engineers. Most likely, it will be related to your promotion and incentive structure. If you are convinced that the problem is somewhere else, I am unlikely to be able to help you, so let's just agree to not waste each-other's time.

This is a solvable problem. If we approach it as we approach technology problems, we can find a solution - even if we end up going down some dead-end detours along the way. But, if we continue doing the same things we have been doing over the last 30 years, but just more of them... Well, I predict more young women leaving high-tech industry to work in all other fields and have productive and successful careers. And, I am not psychic.